By Steve Holland
PETERBOROUGH, N.H. (Reuters) - Republican Jeb Bush vowed on Tuesday to take a more aggressive approach to countering Russia if he is elected president next year, calling Vladimir Putin an "agile adversary" who is exploiting a vacuum of U.S. leadership in Syria and elsewhere.
In an interview with Reuters, Bush said that if elected in 2016 he would seek to build a coalition of European and Arab partners to work for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he said is key to resolving the festering conflict and a worsening refugee crisis.
Calling Putin a "bully", Bush said the United States and Europe should also extend sanctions against Moscow over its military aggression in Ukraine that are set to expire at year's end.
"How to deal with him is to confront him on his terms, not to create a more bellicose environment but to simply say that there is going to be a consequence," Bush said in a wide-ranging interview that mostly focused on foreign policy.
Bush's approach to coalition-building over Syria carries echoes of the coalition his father, then-President George H.W. Bush, built in 1991 to respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He said he would create a no-fly zone to protect Syrian refugees and allow for training of Syrian rebels, an effort that has faltered badly under President Barack Obama.
"You see the potential now for a unified approach against both Assad and ISIS," Bush said, referring to the Islamic State militant group. "If we do nothing, we're basically saying goodbye to the Middle East."
He also said he would make sure the United States continues to confront Islamic State militants in Iraq despite signs that Russia and Iran are exerting growing influence there.
"I wouldn't worry about antagonizing the Russians, for starters. They should worry about antagonizing us," he said.
Bush said he would also take a more robust approach to China's escalation of tensions in the South China Sea and evidence of cyber-hacking emanating from China. He called China a competitor, not an ally, and a "long-term threat" because of Beijing's military buildup and its powerful economy.
"Ideally you get to a point where China and the United States could forge an alliance to solve problems, but I don’t see that in the immediate future," he said.
He said he would regularly send U.S. forces to pass through South China Sea island territories claimed by China, "I'd fly over them regularly without notice. Our navy should go through there. Those are international waters," he said.
As for cyber-hacking, Bush said the United States should create a "healthy deterrent effect" by demonstrating the capability to respond in kind to the Chinese.
"We need to show whatever offensive capabilities we have which I think is important. We need to maintain the dialogue with China to make sure that they understand that this is just not acceptable," he said.
Bush, who earlier this year was the heavy favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination but is now fighting to rise in the polls, made clear he feels that Senator Marco Rubio, a competitor with Bush for the establishment Republican wing, does not have enough experience.
"Marco is a great guy but he hasn’t had the record I’ve had in developing strategies, applying conservative principles, disrupting the old order, sticking with it, moving the needle in terms of progress for the American people," he said.
He drew a connection between Rubio and Obama, who was elected in 2008 as a first-term senator.
"There was nothing in his profile that gave anybody confidence that he actually could lead, and it turns out actually he hasn’t," Bush said.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; editing by Stuart Grudgings)